When the World Wounds by Kiini Ibura Salaam
Third Man Books, 2016
Dystopian stories have recently been en vogue, but Kiini Ibura Salaam’s collection of speculative fiction, When the World Wounds, strays from imagining the bitter end and instead considers the personal or communal challenges of healing once disaster strikes. Salaam’s handful of stories finds characters approaching brutal moments of trauma or dealing with its direct aftermath. Many of her narratives use festering spiritual wounds as an entrance point, whether it is adolescent insects dancing their way to the next stage of metamorphosis, a supernatural slave runaway tasked with building an army, or a Mardi Gras parade leader stuck between the worlds of the living and dead in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The latter two situations make up the largest stories in the collection: “Hemmie’s Calenture” and “Because of the Bone Man,” respectively. These stories are standouts due to their length, extended character development, and harrowing examinations of institutionalized racism.
In particular, “Because of the Bone Man” is haunting. In the spirit of Mardi Gras, this story evokes the collection’s most extravagant prose, while it also naturally maps out Hurricane Katrina’s destruction across neighborhoods in horrifying detail. Traditionally, the Bone Man is responsible for rousing people on the morning of Mardi Gras and also plays the role of moral bogeyman for children. Salaam’s Bone Man is determined to fulfill his role, despite Katrina’s wreckage deterring many from celebrating. The Bone Man and other Mardi Gras celebrities are able to speak directly with the city’s drowned children and become responsible for guiding them through New Orleans to help them understand their fate.
As the capstone work, this story provides the strongest sense of place, and leaves readers considering a contemporary wound that has still not fully healed. Despite the solemn subject matter, “Because of the Bone Man” also reaches the most hopeful conclusion of the bunch. Considering it rounds out the collection, this suggests that healing is ultimately possible, though slow to come.
While Salaam’s stories are rooted in the elements of the physical world, they have an aqueous, dreamlike quality. This aesthetic has the effect of placing readers exceptionally close to the characters. For example, “The Taming” begins:
Hunger throbbed between his eyes and echoed in his hollows. He was uneasy in his hide. Everything was emptiness and nothing changed. Sleep came in jagged spurts. When he woke, there was no leaping, no hunting, no wrestling. There were only the walls that he banged against until bruised.
Such passages evoke a certain reliance on the senses, thereby shrugging off setting and making the physicality of the landscape secondary to how it is perceived. “The Taming,” specifically, is told in close third person to a feral dog or wolf, which gives a visceral cadence and animal’s sensory immediacy to the prose. Perhaps this is why Salaam’s stories seem to rise from the fogs of the subconscious. Her characters build the worlds in which they exist, meaning the setting isn’t created solely for the sake of placing its inhabitants. Salaam’s narrators are omniscient, but they don’t make a habit of dawdling in the details outside of their main subject matter, i.e., the protagonist.
With this in mind, it can take a page or two to find the rhythm of the lengthier stories. “Hemmie’s Calenture,” for example, begins with Hemmie suffering from injuries and a severe fever as she scrambles through the woods to escape bounty hunters. In her fever dream, Hemmie communicates telepathically with a swamp witch who ultimately helps lead her to the troops she must locate to fight a mysterious blob that “absorbed all light, consuming any energy and activity in its vicinity.” Such an introduction by nature requires a certain lack of grounding, but Salaam has ample space to work with in these pieces, and hence has no hesitation in sending readers adrift, knowing they will eventually find their bearings. This immediate disorientation becomes as much part of each character’s personal journey as it does the reader’s.
When the World Wounds is neither intended to be a fresh gash nor a fading scar. Instead, Salaam’s collection seems to capture the strange moments when an abrupt movement causes the sutures to rip or a bruise to pulse. In this sense, each story is profoundly personal, reliant on vulnerability and the recognition of bodily harm. However, wounds can also damage entire communities, and, in whole, pain is universal. When the World Wounds considers the impetus of this pain, and questions whether it is the world itself that strikes or the beings who inhabit it.